In the wake of a humiliating 5-1 defeat to league leaders Napoli last Friday night, Massimiliano Allegri did something quite rare: he admitted a tactical mistake.
“After a few minutes,” the manager said, “I realized we had to switch (Weston) McKennie and (Federico) Chiesa’s position to push (Chiesa) forward.” What a revelation! As encouraging as this admission of culpability was to me, symbolically speaking, in this particular case the tactical mistake to which he’s admitting — that Federico Chiesa needed to be further up the field — is so terribly obvious that even a middle-aged father like me knows it to be true.
But as Juventus round the corner into yet another crucial stretch of the 2022-23 season, Chiesa is one of many lingering questions about how things will, or won’t, coalesce. A trip to Naples was all we needed to bring those questions back to the front of the line, far ahead of “we have a nice win streak going with some clean sheets.”
One’s level of consternation regarding that debacle in the southern part of Bel Paese directly corresponds with the degree to which one sees the unearthed problems as the true characteristics of the club. In other words, how one answers this question: Are all the issues we saw in Naples latent (and perhaps chronic) issues with Juventus, or were they the product of a bad night against a very good team amidst some very serious mitigating circumstances?
There are, as ever, disclaimers, even if you lean toward the former answer: the injuries remain many and serious; the drama off the field is no joke; and Napoli are, in fact, very good.
Even with the disclaimers, even with the torrential downpour of mitigating circumstances, Allegri faces serious questions, certainly more than three I’ve listed below, as Juventus stare down the barrel of devastating consequences should they stumble out of the top four this year. The Old Lady is currently placed precariously in third place, but she’s only three points ahead of Lazio, Atalanta, and Roma, placed fifth, six, and seventh, respectively; that is a pack of wolves who’d love nothing more than to continue to demolish the last vestiges of the Bianconeri’s hegemony.
There is a particular stretch starting March 5 during which Allegri’s men play five of those seven teams in a 10-game span. Logging clean sheets and win streaks against Udinese and Cremonese is great, but this team needs wins against the cream of the crop; this team needs answers to these questions.
1. Where can Allegri viably deploy Chiesa?
Allegri is now on record admitting that Chiesa needs to be pushed into a more attacking position. Of course, this admission came after a particular game and some particular things happening, so I’m not sure at all that we’ll never see Chiesa used as a wingback again, but something needs to give.
Allegri’s Juventus desperately need playmakers on the field, guys who can do stuff with the ball that break down or rattle a defense in a few movements. Angel Di Maria is one such guy, and we saw as much against Napoli. Chiesa, when he’s not asked to be a wingback, is another.
I honestly just hope we’re done with Chiesa out wide in a 3-5-2. If Allegri trots that out against Atalanta, we might concede 16 goals.
2. What will Paul Pogba’s return mean for the midfield?
As if reintegrating Chiesa wasn’t complicated enough, we know that Paul Pogba and Dušan Vlahović have started training with the group and will presumably start playing games at some point, too (one can hope). Incorporating the Serbian striker will be easy enough; he’s a plug-and-play force, essentially, although he wields a different skill set than Arkadiusz Milik.
Pogba, though, is a different matter. The beleaguered midfield has struggled to find consistency for years — years! — and it hasn’t been on the cusp of any such form this campaign. If Pogba actually returns healthy, he’ll be the single best player by some margin, but he’ll be playing with a brand-new set of teammates in terms of actual game experience as a unit. Allegri will be starting from scratch, and the last thing that Juventus need is to spend large amounts of time tinkering with a brittle unit as the oven reaches broiling temperature.
3. Where will the goal-scoring chance creation come from?
In 270 minutes of Serie A play in 2023, Juventus have been offensively inept. There’s no way to sugar-coat it, no way to dodge it. Against relegation-bound Cremonese, the Bianconeri needed a miraculous free kick from Milik to capture all three points. Against an Udinese side that hadn’t won a Serie A game since early October — yes, you read that right — the Bianconeri needed some magic from Chiesa in the 86th minute to set up Danilo. Against Napoli, the Biaconeri needed a pinball machine in the penalty area to spit out a perfect assist to Di Maria.
Three games, three goals, three asterisks. It’s yet another area where Allegri needs to figure out the right combination of players in the right situations, and I honestly would be lying if I said I was confident about the prospects of this side becoming an attacking force overnight.
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I do have some non-answers to some (e.g. don’t play Chiesa as a wingback), but it’s up to the manager, and this team, to figure out some semblance of workability as the road only gets tougher and tougher.